A Word to the E-mail-Wise: Don’t Assume

I received an email from a client the other day, asking a question. I read it, and as I did so, I made an assumption as to the motivation behind her question. So, as you can imagine, I responded with that assumption firmly in place.

Her email response was short and to the point. And just a bit miffed. As I read what she wrote, I realized the motivation I assigned to her question was wrong.


The thing is, she’d also assigned a motivation to my response, and her assumption was incorrect. Had I written what I did with the motivation she assumed, I wouldn’t have blamed her for being miffed. But—for once—I was innocent. As she had been innocent of my assumption.

Because this client is also a dear friend, I hated that my response, and my assumption, had bothered her. Even hurt her. I called and texted an apology. And when we finally talked it through, we agreed that we need to be more careful, especially in these increasingly busy and chaotic days, about thinking we know why people say what they say, be in in email or conversation.

Which brings me to this blog. Email, text, Facebook, Twitter…there are so many ways to contact and talk with—or about—people. Trouble is, it’s all removed from the clues that fill us in on motivation and intent—facial expression, intonation, body language, and so on. So take it from someone for whom jumping to conclusions is the only exercise I get (sigh…), take a few extra seconds to be sure what you’re writing is what you really want to say. And when you read things in the ol’ cyber world, if you’re not clear as to motivation or intent, go the extra mile and ask.

Like my sweet mother always said, “It’s far better to know than to assume.” And it’s all part of extending grace—something we all need to offer.

And receive.


19 Responses to A Word to the E-mail-Wise: Don’t Assume

  1. Avatar
    Jackie Layton February 24, 2016 at 4:42 am #

    I’m glad you all got it worked out.

    I agree it’s easy to misunderstand a person’s intention via text or social media. But sometimes I mess up in real life too. Earlier this month, I made a lady so mad she asked to see the manager. I’ve always babied this particular customer, and she’d evidently had a bad day, and I guess my tone wasn’t pleasing enough. I was distracted by trying to meet other customers’ needs. But I was shocked I upset this particular woman so bad.

    The lesson I learned that day was to try to be more aware of the Holy Spirit’s prompting so I can be more sensitive to others whether face-to-face or the written word.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Avatar
    Judith Robl February 24, 2016 at 5:10 am #

    Ah, Karen!

    Even the most gracious of people flub up from time to time. In this harried, hurried world, it’s easy to assume. But for those of us who have seen that spelling parsed into three syllables, this is a valuable and pointed reminder.

    As my sainted grandmother used to say “it’s better to ask a dumb question than to make a dumb mistake.” As communicators, we need to remember to clarify, clarify, clarify.

    Thank you for this reminder. We can’t hear it often enough.

  3. Avatar
    Michael Emmanuel February 24, 2016 at 5:29 am #

    How true Ms. Ball. It indeed is easy to misconstrue other’s messages and intention. It is why my mum and me have clashes. Especially when she’s having a bad day.
    Jackie, if others would see from our POV, the trouble would be less. I sometimes ignore comments from my mum on the basis of her having had a bad day. But I wonder why she doesn’t consider that I had a busy day…
    I trust in the Holy Spirit to help me look more unto Jesus – who never said the wrong word but always was misinterpreted- for help.

  4. Avatar
    Len Woods February 24, 2016 at 5:44 am #

    Oh, boy…we’ve all been THERE. Ugh.

    Yes, email and text messages are fine for brief, factual exchanges (e.g., “I will see you at 3pm today (2-24-16) at the Starbucks on Main Street.”)

    Anything else (esp. personal/emotional) needs a phone call, Facetime, or face-to-face.

  5. Avatar
    Chris Storm February 24, 2016 at 5:47 am #

    Timely post! Communication has drastically changed over the past ten years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered misunderstandings in email and texts! No room for emotion and we’re all in a big hurry. This is great advice!!

  6. Avatar
    Ane Mulligan February 24, 2016 at 6:03 am #

    This is the reason I tend to use emoticons. If I know the person well, I know they’ll “hear” my voice when reading my email. ?

    • Avatar
      T.K. Farmer February 24, 2016 at 8:17 am #

      I agree. I think the emoticons go a long way and can help express, in writing, positive intentions.

      • Avatar
        Carol Ashby February 24, 2016 at 8:42 am #

        I have another view on emoticons colored by my years of emails in a masculine (engineering/science) work environment. I never use them. Most of the men I know don’t use them, even in non-work communications.

        For light, friendly conversation, they’re fine, but I assume the smile on the face without the little face symbol. If you’re trying to convey something important in a business communication, especially with a man, I would recommend not using them. It creates an unprofessional impression.

  7. Avatar
    Barbara February 24, 2016 at 6:46 am #

    Wowwwwwwwwwww. I absolutely relate to this post. I had a similar situation about a month ago, where I wrote something in email to a friend and thought I had released her from feeling obligated to a certain response to me. Instead of releasing her, I offended her. Unfortunately, since an entire ocean separates us, there could be no face-to-face interaction. Thankfully, we were able to backtrack and re-communicate what just happened. We ended friends, but that doesn’t always happen when miscommunications arise.

  8. Avatar
    Beverly Brooks February 24, 2016 at 6:52 am #

    Thanks for sharing a life experience. I learn so much from those. The thoughtful comments from other readers certainly shows that many of us need to take a look at this present day quagmire.

    Brief communications have a place … but I doubt it is the prominent one society now favors.

  9. Avatar
    Shulamit February 24, 2016 at 7:36 am #

    As communications director for an organization, I have to answer emails with requests and questions from people I barely know, on a regular basis. There are many times I could respond as if the question reveals a motivation that is not stated.

    I try to make it a habit to always respond to these questions with the only assumption is that they are asking the questions with no ulterior motive, and if they mention any frustration in trying to get something done through our organization, I apologize for the technical problem they were having, and offer to help them.

    Sometimes they assure me afterwards that it wasn’t a big deal; making that assumption has not caused any problems so far. Assuming that someone has no ulterior motive (even when they did) has never caused a problem, and often softens a person’s approach in follow up contact.

    Therefore, I do make assumptions: I assume the best of the person behind the words on the screen in front of me. If someone needs to clarify (for example) that they meant to accuse me of something, that is on them.

  10. Avatar
    Carol Ashby February 24, 2016 at 8:09 am #

    This is a great post, Karen, and it really hits home. After many years in a work environment of mostly logical males, my default email style is masculine.

    Get everything important into the first email so you have all the information you need right away and we don’t have to play email ping pong for you to know what I need to tell you.

    Crisp, confident, minimal words lasering to the key point. (Your time is valuable, so I shouldn’t waste it. If I’m not confident that what I’m writing is worth your time, why would I send it to you?)

    No filler phrases or waffle words like “I think” (If I didn’t think it, why would I write it?) and “you might consider” (If I didn’t think you’d consider it, I wouldn’t waste your time making you read it.)

    It’s efficient and causes no offense in the masculine engineering world, but it’s not the style for communicating most effectively in the more artistic author world where the impression made by the personal interaction is at least as important as the communication of information. Sometimes I slip away from friendly author style into efficient engineer style, and that’s not good when I’m not writing to engineers.

    There are two things that I think are important no matter what communication style is being used.

    First, I try to attribute the best possible motive to the person sending the email. More times than not, there’s no hostility behind ill-chosen words. God blessed me with a thick skin, and it works with email ant text as well as it does face-to-face. Simply by choosing to assume the best, the first miscommunication doesn’t spiral into anger and hurt feelings.

    Second, I apologize and clarify what I really meant the moment I realize someone has misinterpreted something I wrote or said. Wounds left alone too often fester instead of heal.

  11. Avatar
    Christine Henderson February 24, 2016 at 8:15 am #

    As I read your post, I couldn’t help but think about a recent critique I did for another writer. One of her character’s said a simple statement that could be taken either as a dismissal of what the other character said or as an agreement. I suggested she add physical reactions or signs of emotions to define what she meant for more clarity.

    It’s the same with social media. Define what you mean — unless your intention is to leave it open to stir up the pot of discussion.

  12. Avatar
    Jennifer Allen February 24, 2016 at 8:28 am #

    This article really hit home for me. It’s one of the reasons I don’t post much. I’m always afraid someone will a motive behind the post that just isn’t there and get offended.

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby February 24, 2016 at 8:47 am #

      Please don’t feel that way. You may have wonderful insights that are exactly what some of us need to think about.

  13. Avatar
    Rachel Malcolm February 24, 2016 at 9:05 am #

    A great reminder! I’ve gotten into trouble before with false assumptions. Now I try to assume the best.

  14. Avatar
    Tammy Fish February 24, 2016 at 10:29 am #

    Such a good reminder, Karen. We are to overlook and show grace. I just came across a wonderful quote from a 17th century poet, George Herbert. It can certainly be applied to forbearing as well. “He who can not forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.”

    Thanks for encouraging us all.

  15. Avatar
    S. Kim Henson February 24, 2016 at 9:57 pm #

    This is why I use way too many smiley faces and hearts. An annoying amount, actually, but, so far, no one’s misinterpreted anything … they all know I’m happy and that I love them. LoL. Great post and something to keep in mind, especially in business when I don’t use emojis. Thanks. 🙂

  16. Avatar
    Linda K. Rodante February 26, 2016 at 7:51 pm #

    Good word! Thank you.

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